Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0 – match review, player ratings and highlights

BRIGHT SPARK: Gboly Ariyibi was Town's most threatening player against Oxford, creating a number of good chances. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
BRIGHT SPARK: Gboly Ariyibi was Town's most threatening player against Oxford, creating a number of good chances. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds

Such is the unique way football can divide opinion so wildly, this was one of those afternoons that left social media awash with a wide-range of differing post-match assessments, from the optimists to the cynics.

All those who were in attendance at Sixfields watched the same 90 minutes as everyone else and yet no one seemed quite sure what to make of it at full-time. Most, if not all, would agree that a point from this game was not the desired outcome but, beyond that, and depending on the fullness of your glass, you could make a legitimate case for feeling both upbeat about Northampton’s survival prospects and also fearful of what this season will ultimately hold.

If you’re a glass-half-full kinda person, you might conclude, justifiably in some respects, that there were reasons to be optimistic. Sure, drawing 0-0 at home to a team in poor form and sliding towards relegation is hardly irrefutable evidence of a team on their way to safety but the performance was a marked upgrade on those that went before and you can point to genuine missed chances as the reason they failed to win, which has seldom been the case this season.

Football is a game of fine margins and this was the type of afternoon that may have gone a very different way and left fans in a very different mood had Town capitalised on their strong start and series of early chances.

In the week leading up to the game, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had spoken about the importance of making a positive start, of coming out of the blocks with intensity. His players did not disappointment and, on another day, the three points could have been sewn up with just 20 minutes on the clock. Indeed, you get the feeling that had Chris Long taken one of the two glaring opportunities that fell his way, instead missing the target both times, they’d have won the game comfortably.

As it was, the longer it remained goalless, the more Oxford improved. Even so, it goes without saying that in patches on Saturday the Cobblers were vastly improved in comparison to their two most recent outings at Sixfields against Rochdale and Gillingham. Then again, that’s not saying much.

For those first 20 minutes, it was about as threatening as Town have looked all season. Gboly Ariyibi was a livewire on the left, Matt Crooks surged forward from midfield and John-Joe O’Toole linked effectively with Long. If they can channel that passage of play and replicate it in most of their remaining 11 games, goals are there for the taking.

By contrast, there will be others who, also justifiably, look at the negatives of this performance – namely the second-half – and worry that their team does not have what it takes to beat the drop. Yes, Town might have been two goals to the good by half-time but the harsh reality is that you simply cannot afford to miss such presentable chances in their predicament. What’s more, the fact they could not then sustain their good play, instead reverting to type and giving United encouragement to take control of the game, is a lingering concern.

The problem throughout much of the second-half was not so much with the personnel or the performances of individuals, but more to do with the overall approach. Town, having been so front-footed and full of positive energy at the start, retreated back into their shells and the longer the game went on and the more the hosts sat off, the more Oxford believed.

And had United snatched it at the end – as they should have done when Wes Thomas, unmarked, headed wide from six yards – Northampton could have had no complaints. This passiveness is now becoming a long-term issue at Sixfields that is threatening to derail their survival bid.

While away from home this approach works, as demonstrated by recent results, allowing teams to dominate the ball in home games only agitates the crowd and gives the visiting side increased belief. For the final 10 minutes of Saturday’s game, it was all Oxford with Northampton restricted to occasional counter-attacks (though they twice wasted glorious opportunities to score on the break).

One of the major positives of the afternoon was the performance of Crooks. The 24-year-old has seldom reached his full potential this season but this was his third straight man of the match performance and it was the best of the lot.

From breaking up play, making tackles and charing forward to support attacks, he did everything you want from a midfield player. If he can maintain this form until the end of the season, and if Ariyibi’s footwork remains as sharp and as troublesome as it was at times on Saturday, the Cobblers, along with the likes of O’Toole and an in-form Long, have enough quality going forward to carve out the goals required to stay up.

Then we come to the boos. In fairness, there were only a smattering at full-time and they faded quickly. The real discernible groans of frustration came during the match when Hasselbaink opted to withdraw his most dangerous attacker in Ariyibi, citing fatigue afterwards, and replaced him with Hildeberto Pereira, who actually did well when he came on.

Football is a game of fine margins and this was the type of afternoon that may have gone a very different way and left fans in a very different mood had Town capitalised on their strong start and series of early chances.

You can understand and appreciate both sides of the argument. On one hand, fans are frustrated by what they are being subjected to week in, week out – it’s now just four home wins in the last 14 – but booing does not help anyone. In fact, it only serves to create tension between payers, fans and the manager. In Town’s current situation, that’s the last thing which is needed.

How they rated...

Richard O’Donnell - This was his first clean sheet since signing for the club and it’s unlikely he’ll get many easier afternoons, although that largely owed to Oxford’s inability to hit the target rather than a particularly robust defensive effort, as epitomised by Thomas’ terrible late miss... 7

Brendan Moloney - Great anticipation to get back and clear a shot off the line after his goalkeeper was out of position, the highlight of another pretty secure 90 minutes from the full-back. Was reasonably error-free in defence and strived to get forward whenever the chance presented itself... 7

Ash Taylor - Took a while for Oxford to get going and really trouble him and Town’s defence in general. Didn’t cough up many clear chances but did allow Thomas to find space in the box and he should have been punished... 7

Jordan Turnbull - Again not his busiest 90 minutes but carried out the basics well and one vital intervention prevented an ominous United counter-attack from developing further late in the first-half. Will be relieved to finally record a clean sheet... 7

Joe Bunney - His tendency to get forward leaves space behind and Oxford looked to exploit that, repeatedly attacking down their right flank. Was up against a tricky opponent and found the going tough for most of the game, though did improve... 5

Matt Grimes - Hit and miss display at the base of midfield where he did some excellent things, showing good composure to get out of tight spaces, but his passing can occasionally be haphazard and as a consequence it leave his team-mates exposed.. 6

Matt Crooks - Up there with one of the best individual performance of any Town player this season. A powerful, seemingly ever-present presence all of the pitch. He made tackles, he tracked back, he broke up play but his defensive duties didn’t stop him from charging forward, both with and without the ball, to provide the extra body in attack. A complete midfield performance... 9 CHRON STAR MAN

Sam Hoskins - Started nervously and struggled to impose himself on the game. Passing was wayward and didn’t play with the conviction of a confident man. Better in the second-half though and almost got on the score sheet... 6

Gboly Ariyibi - A livewire on the left. Sharp footwork, nifty skills and his direct running caused all sorts of problems for Oxford who couldn’t handle him as he instigated several scoring opportunities. Faded in the latter stages but should have stayed on because if Town were to score, he was most likely to be the architect... 8

John-Joe O’Toole - Was an influential figure in the first period, at the heart of many of Town’s best moments. Combined with Crooks and Ariybi effectively and provided the link between Long and everyone else. Very different story after half-time though when the game became stretched, he tired and it was back to chasing hopeful long balls... 7

Chris Long - The service into him hasn’t always been great this season but there were no excuses here as chances arrived in spades. Got his feet all wrong for the best one, skewing high and wide from eight yards, and was twice off target after that. Might have had a hat-trick on another day... 5

Substitutions

Hildebero Pereira - 6

Shay Facey - 6